Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

The Roman ships of Fiumicino

Saturday, April 9th, 2022

The Museum of the Ships of Fiumicino is home to the remains of five Roman ships from the imperial era that were discovered during construction of the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. It is one of the most important discoveries ever made as regards Roman civilian naval technology, and an invaluable source of information on imperial shipbuilding.

The ships are of three different types. Ships Fiumicino 1-3 are caudicarii, barges with flat bottoms and high sides that were used as transport vehicles on the canals and lagoons linking the sea at Portus inland to the Tiber and on to Rome. They played a vital role as the primary modes of transport of people and merchandise from the port to the Eternal City.

For the principal waterway servicing the capital of a vast empire, the Tiber is not very accommodating. It is shallow, winding, floods in the rainy season and churns with treacherous currents and rocky shoals. These barges had to be towed with ropes by pulling crews on the river bank to reach Rome’s main inner port in what is now the Testaccio neighborhood. Fully laden at its 70-ton capacity, the largest of the caudicarii would have taken three days to travel the 20 miles from sea to city.

The fourth is a sea-going vessel. It is small with a 4-5 ton capacity, and was likely used for commerce rather than longer voyages in the open sea. It may have been small, but was extraordinarily well-made, from the design to the execution. It has a streamlined hydrodynamic design and was expertly crafted from high-quality materials. It was highly maneuverable

Fiumicino Five is a fishing boat, navis vivara, a modest little rowboat  that is unique in the world. It is in an excellent state of preservation, the hull almost complete. What makes it one of a kind is that it still contains the wooden well the fisherman would use to hold his catch alive before heading to shore at the end a day’s fishing. The square well was built in the middle of the boat consisted of four wooden walls inclined slightly inward centered over the keel. Holes on either side of the keel could be unplugged to ensure the exchange of water for the catch no matter how long the work day. The pine plugs are still present. The well could hold about 80 gallons of water.

Sea fish were a luxury food, sold for high prices to the homes of the rich and aristocratic in Rome. Fresh water wish were the staples of the budget-conscious diet. A fisherman who could deliver his catch still living to the markets of Rome would make good money for his trouble.

Excavations at the time of the airport’s construction unearthed structures from the Roman port and, between 1958 and 1965, five ships in close proximity to each other. The ships were conserved inside a wooden hangar built at the find site ensuring the fragile wood vessels would be preserved for eventual public display within the confines of the ancient port basin built and expanded by Claudius and Trajan. The hangar became the Museum of the Ships of Fiumicino in 1979.

Structural problems forced the museum’s closure in 2002, and kept it closed for almost 20 years. The museum recently completed an extensive renovation program and reopened its doors in October 2021. It certainly could not be more conveniently located for visitors flying into Rome. You can literally see the airport a few hundred feet away from the museum windows. Two minutes on an airport shuttle, and you can while away a layover exploring ancient Roman modes of transportation.


Aachen museum buys Charlemagne denarius on eBay for a steal

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

A rare silver denarius bearing the only known contemporary portrait of Charlemagne that was bought on eBay for a song is now on display in the Centre Charlemagne museum in Aachen. Less than three-quarters of an inch in diameter and weighing 1.51 grams, the little penny is exhibited under a magnifying glass so visitors can inspect the laureate profile of the Emperor wearing the equestrian cape. There are only 50 known examples of this coin.

It was unpublished and unrecognized in a private collection in Normandy for years and emerged on eBay when the collector’s grandson dragged grandpa’s coin collection out of the attic and sold it. An Aachen native with a sharp numismatic eye spotted the coin on eBay and alerted the Centre Charlemagne that they might want to bid. They did and they won, spending a four-figure sum (in euros) for a piece that would have sold for as much as 160,000 euros on the coin market.

Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short had established a new monetary system early in his reign around 755 A.D., restoring the silver content in the penny that was a descendant of the Roman denarius. Under Pepin’s monetary reform, all coins were marked with the name or title of the king as they were issued by his authority and with him as guarantor of coin quality.

Charlemagne succeeded his father King of the Franks in 768 and continued his monetary policies, expanding the silver-based standard of one pound = 240 deniers (ie, denarii, ie pennies) throughout his expanding territories, even via alliance to Mercia in Britain. When Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, his new status was reflected in his coinage.

Even though Frankish monarchs had traditionally rejected association with the ancient empire, Charlemagne selectively embraced imperial iconography and nomenclature. When he began to issue the first coins bearing his portrait in 804, he turned to the coinage of Constantine as model, hence the laureate profile on the obverse which is inscribed KAROLUS IMP[erator] AUG[gustus].

On the reverse of the new portrait coin was a structure numismatic scholars call a “temple” for its porch, column and pediment design. This one has crosses, though, one of the pinnacle and one floating in the center between the two sets of columns, perhaps representing the Edicule, the small shrine built by Constantine over the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. It bears the inscription XRICTIANA RELIGIO (“The Christian Religion”), a reference to Charlemagne’s self-appointed role as “Defender of the Faith.”

Charlemagne’s “temple-style” silver coins were widely circulated and struck until his death in 814, but for reasons that are unclear, very few of them have survived. The example that has now gone on display in Aachen was an issue struck after the coronation of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious as co-emperor in September 813. These would have been presentation pieces, honorary gifts more than general use coinage. Charlemagne’s death four months later put an abrupt end to the run.


Unique Gallic tripod banquet bucket revealed

Friday, April 1st, 2022

Four Iron Age busts and a beautifully preserved wooden banquet bucket have been presented to the public for the first time in an exhibition at the Musée de Bretagne – Les Champs Libre in Rennes, Brittany. The bucket is unique in Brittany, and unique for having been found in a well instead of a tomb.

The five objects were discovered in the fall of 2019 in an excavation of a site in Trémuson that proved to be a large country estate of the Gallic elite occupied and altered between the 3rd and 1st century B.C. In the middle of the 1st century B.C., some sort of upheaval caused the residents to deposit objects as offerings at the bottom of the well.

The first sculpture was found near the well, face down in a pit dug to the busts’ dimensions. It is the bust of a man wearing a torc around his neck, marking him as an aristocrat. The figure is finely modeled, with neatly combed hair and a well-shaped beard. It dates to the middle of the 1st century B.C. The three other statuettes, torcless and more roughly modeled, were found at the bottom of the ancient well. The four busts all bear traces of fire and deliberate damage. It’s possible this was once a set with religious purpose that was desecrated and burned.

The abandoned well’s waterlogged soil had preserved objects, including a great deal of wood, thrown into it during the troubled mid-1st century B.C. As archaeologists dug down, they encountered charred wooden planks and other architectural elements including poles, beams and posts. The planks may have been part of the cover of the well in its heyday. In total, the team recovered 460 pieces of waterlogged wood, most of them fragmentary and partially carbonized by fire.

At the bottom of the well were the three busts, a beautifully tuned fragment of wood furniture, an ash mallet, a cylindrical oak bucket, several staves and the exceptional tripod banquet bucket. Crafted of yew wood encircled with two bronze straps and decorated with bronze openwork plates, the tripod bucket dates to the second half of the 2nd century B.C.  They were used at banquets to serve wine. The bucket is almost complete, missing only a few small pieces of the openwork and metal accents.

The woods are so well-preserved they are remarkable representatives of Gallic woodcrafts. The oak bucket has a drain hole in the bottom that still has its maple cap in place. The ash mallet was fragmented in the way it was because a fracture in the mortise. It also has perforations from the joinery and visible marks from a planer blade on the underside of the head. The yew bucket has the small dowels used to reinforce the staves at their connection points still safely in place.

The fragile wood pieces were soaked with PEG which removes the water in the cells and replaces it with a waxy substance that keeps the wood from warping and shrinking as it dries. The process took two years. Conserved and stable, the yew bucket went on display with the four sculptures on March 18th and will remain on display until December 4th.


Versailles restores Royal Tennis Court as Museum of the Revolution

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

The Tennis Court Oath was one of the pivotal moments of the French Revolution. The day was June 20, 1789. The deputies of newly-formed National Assembly, a little too heavy on the Third Estate, too light on the Clergy and Nobility and way too keen to make France a constitutional monarchy for King Louis XVI’s taste, arrived at the meeting place of the Estates General only to find the doors barred and the premises occupied by troops. So they regrouped a few streets over inside the Royal Tennis Court Louis XIV had built a hundred years earlier to play the “jeu de paume,” a precursor to tennis, on the recommendation of his physician.

Deputy Jean Joseph Mounier proposed that in response to this insult to their rights, the nation’s representatives take a solemn oath in defense of the public good and national interest. The proposal was received with thunderous applause and the Assembly quickly drew up a decree:

The National Assembly, considering that it has been called to establish the constitution of the realm, to bring about the regeneration of public order, and to maintain the true principles of monarchy; nothing may prevent it from continuing its deliberations in any place it is forced to establish itself; and, finally, the National Assembly exists wherever its members are gathered.

Decrees that all members of this assembly immediately take a solemn oath never to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is established and fixed upon solid foundations; and that said oath having been sworn, all members and each one individually confirm this unwavering resolution with his signature.

The deputies then each “signed” by swearing:

We swear never to separate ourselves from the National Assembly, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is drawn up and fixed upon solid foundations.

This was the first direct confrontation between the revolutionaries and the king. They were still on board with a monarchy, but only as bound by the will of the people. By this oath they declared to Louis XVI that the National Assembly was in service of the public and national good, not the king.

A year after the momentous event, oath-taker Edmond Dubois-Crancé asked his friend painter Jacques-Louis David to commemorate the anniversary with a monumental painting that would put the Tennis Court Oath on the same plane as David’s famed historical works like 1784’s The Oath of the Horatii. David exhibited a preparatory pen-and-ink drawing of his planned painting in 1791, hoping to sell engravings of the drawing via national subscription to raise the 72,000 pounds he needed to complete a painting 33 feet long.

Unfortunately for David, the France of 1791 was very different from that of 1789. Constitutional monarchists were very much not in favor anymore and many of the 1789 heroes were either fired, disgraced or, well, dead, by 1791. The subscription model failed because the public had no interest in celebrating the event. David never finishing the painting and kept it in his workshop until his death in 1825. The unfinished work was cut up into three pieces by his heirs. The largest portion was sold to the state and is now on display in the Chimay attic at Versailles.

The Tennis Court itself became property of the state in 1793 and was closed to the public in 1798. It was used for random purposes — storage, workshop, painter’s studio — for a while and listed as a national historic monument in 1848. Come the Second Empire, the Royal Tennis Court was neglected, its associations no longer appreciated by the powers that be.

The idea of celebrating the Tennis Court Oath came back into favor a century later under the French Third Republic which embraced its revolutionary antecedents. In 1880, July 14th, Bastille Day, was declared the French National Celebration, and the government began to plan for a museum of the Revolution. In 1882, the old Royal Tennis Court, abandoned for decades by that point, was chosen as the spot for the new museum.

It was refurbished by the architect of the Palace of Versailles, Edmond Guillaume. The French government also commissioned a new artist, Luc-Olivier Merson, to make a painting of the Oath based on David’s drawing and unfinished canvas. Ninety-four years to the day after the deputies of the National Assembling took the Tennis Court Oath, the new Museum of the Revolution opened in the Royal Tennis Court complete with a statue and portrait busts of the most important signatories. Above the busts is a band painted on the walls containing the names of all signatories. Beneath the band the walls were painted in rich Pompeian red.

This new vision of the Royal Tennis Court also faded quickly. After the centenary of the oath in 1889, the court was just maintained but not handled with the care it required. There was even talk in the 1930s of converting it into a ping pong room for Senate functionaries who worked at Versailles.

Last year, Versailles undertook a comprehensive restoration program to return the Tennis Court to its 1883 condition when it was reborn as the Museum of the Revolution. Over eight months of work, restorers were able to restore the black cement floor, the Pompeian red wall paint, the names and laurel wreaths and decorative borders on the band, and Merson’s monumental painting.

The room is reopening on Friday after eight months of work, giving the public “a forgotten part of our history,” Catherine Pegard, president of the palace’s public administration, told AFP.

It is dominated by a monumental canvas, also restored, which was based on the famous unfinished work by Jacques-Louis David depicting the signing of the oath.


Archaeological collection of Kings of Italy reopens

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022

The Archaeological Gallery in the Royal Palace of the House of Savoy in Turin has reopened after an extensive redesign. More than 1,000 ancient artifacts and artworks, many of which have never before been on public display, have been installed in the ground floor of the 19th century New Wing of the palace, which connects through a monumental atrium to the painting collection of the Savoy dynasty.

The earliest of the Savoy dukes to succumb to the fascination of Antiquity were Emanuele Filiberto (1553-80) and his son Carlo Emanuele I (1580-1630). In the first gallery there are two 16th-century fakes that illustrate the taste of the period: the mysterious “cabalistic” bust of Isis in black marble with the Signs of the Zodiac on its face; and the sleeping boy with the wings of Eros but the attributes of Hercules, with deliberate breakages.

By the 18th century, the works began to be seen more as sources of knowledge than trophies, so in 1724 the collection, which in the meanwhile had grown through purchases and donations, was given to the University of Turin by King Vittorio Amedeo II, and the poet, scholar and playwright Scipione Maffei was charged with displaying it in the Palazzo della Regia Università. A hundred years later, the Egyptian collection assembled by Bernardino Drovetti and bought by King Carlo Felice was put on display in the former Collegio dei Nobili. In the 1840s Paul Emile Botta, the French consul in Mosul, discovered Niniveh and the Assyrian civilisation, while a little later Luigi Palma di Cesnola and his brother Alessandro were putting together one of the greatest collections of Cypriot antiquities from the excavations they were conducting on the island. Both these campaigns enriched the Savoy collections, with two exquisite reliefs in calcareous alabaster depicting the Assyrian king, Sargon II and a court dignitary, both from the palace at Khorsabad now on show in the Galleria.

The new gallery occupies 10 rooms divided into five sections. The first section covers the history of the collection itself, accumulated over 400 years by the Savoy dynasty, since the 11th century rulers of the Savoy region which includes modern-day Piedmont with Turin as its capital, and Kings of Italy from 1860 until 1946. From the origins of the collection, visitors move through the long Sculpture Gallery lined on both sides by Greek and Roman statues, portrait busts and sarcophagus reliefs. The gallery ends in the Rotunda of the Emperors, where busts of Roman emperors surround the viewer.

The next section is dedicated to the Near Ancient East and features Assyrian artifacts, including the portrait relief of King Sargon II, and the largest collection of cuneiform texts and cylinder seals in Italy.

Rooms dedicated to Roman Civilization follow, that includes a never-before-exhibited 19th century cast of the Fasti Praenestini calendar, a mosaic of Orpheus taming the beasts and the portrait bust of Julius Caesar considered by scholars to be the most realistic known, and therefore likely the one that most resembles him.

The Greek and Etruscan Civilization rooms contain, among many other treasures, more than 400 Greek and Italian ceramics plus a second collection of Etruscan bronzes, bucchero pottery, cinerary urns and sarcophagi, including the large sarcophagus of Matausna dated to 280-270 B.C.

The last section, Antiquities from Cyprus, contains the objects from the greatest chronological span in the museum, ranging from the Bronze Age (3rd millennium B.C.) to Late Antiquity (5th century A.D.).


Met acquires Renaissance roundel 18 years after 1st attempt

Thursday, February 24th, 2022

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has at long last acquired an exceptional Renaissance parcel-gilt bronze roundel 18 years after it first tried and failed to buy it at auction. At 16.5 inches in diameter, rimmed and embellished with gilded accents and silver inlay, it is the largest bronze roundel known from the Renaissance, and one of the most if not the most technically sophisticated, which is why the Met was more than willing to pay 27 million dollars and wait a year to not let this masterpiece slip through its fingers again.

It depicts Venus and her lover Mars flirting while her husband Vulcan labors at the forge. Venus sits in the center with Cupid on her lap driving his arrow into her breast. She has wings, the right one outstretched and fully visible, the left mostly hidden behind Mars’ shield. Mars is armed with a sword and scabbard. Vulcan is making a helmet embossed with a horse, his hammer raised mid-strike.

In the exergue below the scene is a Latin inscription reading “CYPRIA MARS ET AMOR GAVDENT VVLCANE LABORAS,” meaning “Venus, Mars and Cupid enjoy themselves while Vulcan works.” This was a popular motif in the art of northern Italy in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

The exceptional quality of the rendering from the masks on Venus’ sandals, Mars’ decorated scabbard, even the wrinkles on Vulcan’s face delicately gilded for emphasis indicate this work was cast by a master goldsmith. Metallurgic analysis of the bronze alloy found it has an unusually high copper content comparable to Renaissance medals now in the National Gallery in Washington.

There is no definitive information about its origins and ownership history. The roundel first burst on the scene in 2003 at a Christie’s auction in London. Appraisers discovered it, unpublished and unrecognized, in an estate belonging to the heirs of George Treby III, a lawyer and MP in the first half of the 18th century. Treby was an avid collector of art and antiquities and is known to have Grand Toured in Rome in 1746. There is no documentation of his acquisition of the roundel, but given that his descendants had it for centuries, he is almost certainly the source.

The 2003 sellers had no idea it was a Renaissance piece. They assumed it was of relatively late manufacture. Christie’s experts recognized it as having been made in the late 15th century for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Italy. There are no other versions of it known to exist, nor any roundels of this size crafted by this hand. The only cognate is a plaster relief from the Bardini Collection in Florence, and its attribution is uncertain.

Christie’s leading candidate for the master craftsman who made the roundel was Gian Marco Cavalli, known from the documentary record as having made bronzes for the Gonzaga family, but there are no works firmly attributed to him. His details fit the bill, though. He was a goldsmith, he did a commission of four silver roundels with the signs of the zodiac for the Gonzaga. His last name may even appear on the roundel in disguise. “Cavalli” means horses, and he called himself “Cavallino” in one letter, so that disproportionately large rearing horse on the helmet Vulcan is hammering out may be a sort of secret signature.

Even with an unknown maker, the roundel roused enormous interest at the 2003 auction. The Met was an active bidder, but ultimately lost out to a private collector who bought it for £6.9 million, setting a new world record for a Renaissance bronze. The buyer’s family sold the roundel to a UK art dealer in 2019 for an undisclosed amount. The dealer gave the Met a second bite at the apple, and this time money was evidently no object because the museum dropped £17 million plus £3.4 million VAT) to buy the bronze, contingent on the granting of an export license.

The UK Ministry of Culture imposed a temporary export ban to give a British institution a chance to acquire the piece for the purchase price including VAT. When nobody could be found with such deep pockets by the end of 2021, the UK granted the export license.

“The bronze roundel is an absolute masterpiece, standing apart for its historical significance, artistic virtuosity, and unique composition,” said Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director. “It is a truly transformational acquisition for The Met’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture. We look forward to further studying and displaying this magnificent work, one that establishes Cavalli as one of the ingenious creators of the Gonzaga court style.”

Cavalli (born about 1454, died after 1508) collaborated for over 30 years with Andrea Mantegna (1430/31–1506), the principal painter to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and with Antico (ca. 1460–1528), the Gonzaga family’s principal sculptor. Yet the attribution of works to Cavalli remained challenging until the discovery of the roundel in a British country house in 2003. The roundel may have been made for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539), the most important woman patron of the Italian Renaissance.

Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, stated, “While The Met is rich in paintings and prints by Mantegna, and holds the largest collection of Antico’s gilt and silvered bronze sculptures outside Europe, there was no equivalent example in bronze relief in our collection. With this exciting acquisition, The Met is now one of the only museums in the world that can illustrate the fundamental collaboration between Mantegna, Antico, and Cavalli under the patronage of Isabella d’Este.” Denise Allen, Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, added: “The Mantuan roundel’s sumptuous gilding, meticulously inlaid silvering, and masterfully varied chasing identify the roundel as a masterpiece in which Cavalli expressed his superlative abilities as a goldsmith and sculptor.”


Dutch state acquires Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer

Sunday, February 13th, 2022

The Netherlands has acquired Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer for the national collection, spending more money than the Louvre could dream of raising to buy it from the French branch of the Rothschild family.

Rembrandt painted The Standard Bearer in 1636 when he was 30 years old. It’s a self-portrait in three-quarters length, depicting the artist in the shimmering outfit of a standard-bearer in the Eighty Years’ War. His hand on his hip, Rembrandt stares jauntily out at the viewer while the standard drapes behind him and over his left hand. This is one of the first paintings Rembrandt made after opening his studio in Amsterdam, and his choice to style himself as a militia man in all his finery was a deliberate choice to promote his services for the most valued commission of the era: a group portrait of city militia. Six years later, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq commissioned Rembrandt to create a portrait of his company of Amsterdam civic militia and the Night Watch was born.

According to the Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits, The Standard Bearer “is a unique work that belongs to the top 10 of [Rembrandt’s] oeuvre. The self-portrait is, in fact, his artistic breakthrough in the run-up to The Night Watch. It is deeply rooted in Dutch culture and history and symbolizes the rebelliousness of the painter and his country.”

It has always been in private collections, King George IV’s among them. The French branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty has owned it since 1844. In 2018, the Rothschilds approached the French government and the Rijksmuseum offering the painting to both. Three years earlier the Rothschilds had successfully sold the only full-length portraits Rembrandt ever painted to France and the Netherlands, and they were hoping to pull a similar rabbit out of the hat with The Standard Bearer which costs more individually than the pair of portraits did together.

This time France put a temporary export block on the painting to give the Louvre 30 months to raise the purchase price of 165 million euros. The Louvre was unable to put together the necessary sum within the 30-month window, so in December 2021 the race to the sale was back on. The Rijksmuseum wasted no time. Director Taco Dibbits declared the museum willing to “go to extremes” to secure the portrait and he was not kidding.

It was so expensive it literally required an act of congress (okay technically parliament) to buy. The Dutch House of Representatives had to approve an amendment to the budget of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to allocate €150 million for the purchase, that’s €131 million on top of the €19 million from the Museum Purchase Fund budget. The Rembrandt Association will pitch in another €15 million and the Rijksmuseum Fund €10 million.

Once the sale is concluded, The Standard Bearer will tour the Netherlands, going on display in every province of the country. It will then find its permanent home in the  Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour.


Child mummy with mullet CT scanned

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

The latest episode of the British Museum’s excellent YouTube series Curator’s Corner looks at the museum’s use of a high-resolution CT scanner to study the mummies in its collection. There are still many things we don’t know about Egyptian mummification processes because almost no written material about it has survived (only three papyri are known), and because even modern non-destructive methods of analysis like X-rays and CT scans have been deployed on a small number of examples.

To expand the available data of mummification, the museum has undertaken a comprehensive re-examination of its mummies from the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms through the Roman period, spanning the millennia from 2000 B.C. to 300 A.D., discovered at different sites in Egypt. The scanner they are using is leaps and bounds ahead of scans taken just 10 years ago, capable of capturing extremely thin elements — surviving skin, hair, textiles — as well as the dense elements like bone.

The episode illustrates the British Museum’s CT scanner at work on the cartonnage mummy of child from the mid-1st century that was discovered in the necropolis of Hawara in 1889. The mummy is tightly enclosed in a case made of linen, plaster and resin and wrapped with a painted burial cloth. Over the head is a tempera portrait depicting a young boy wearing a white tunic with a red ribbon or corded necklace. An amulet was probably affixed to the case at the apex of the necklace, but that has been lost.

His hair is cut in a distinctive business-in-the-front short bang with a party-in-the back unbound lock flowing on both sides of his neck. This may be a variation on the side lock, sometimes referred to as the Horus Lock, which is common in iconographic depictions of children from the Old Kingdom through the Late Antiquity.

The painted shroud is decorated with images of deities, including Nut with outspread wings flanked by sphinxes. Below her the shroud is divided into four panels with images of rituals performed by priests in front of deities. The CT scan revealed the painted decoration on the sides that was too damaged or faded to be seen with the naked eye. Isis is on one side, her sister Nephthys on the other, their wings spread in a gesture of protection around the face of the child. The scan also detected the presence of four wax amulets placed directly on the child’s skin.

The Curator’s Corner episode shows some excellent images of the highly detailed CT scans explained by Egypt and Sudan department curators Daniel Antoine and Marie Vandenbeusch.


Coachman’s great-grandson donates Victorian carriage to museum

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

The descendant of coachman Thomas Pedler has donated the carriage his great-grandfather drove in the Victorian era to the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court in Devonshire. The carriage belonged to Robert Chichester, cousin of Colonel John Chichester who built the current Arlington Court in the 1820s, so the donation still keeps this glorious conveyance in the family.

The museum in the stables of Arlington Court houses more than 40 carriages from a range of backgrounds and purposes, including the gilded Speaker’s State Coach, a glass hearse, an entirely utilitarian servant’s cart and private luxury coaches like this one. The collection began in 1964 with a donation of eight carriages from the Marquess of Bute. The National Trust set them up in the Victorian stable block of Arlington Court because the stables were still present, in good condition and empty instead of having been converted to other uses (cafes, shops, public restrooms) like many of the stables under the Trust’s care. The collection grew from there, even requiring construction of an annex to fit them. This is the first carriage with any connection to the Chichester family in the museum.

Robert Chichester and family lived in a manor named Hall near the village of Bishop’s Tawton in North Devon. The estate had been in Chichester family since the 16th century, but Robert built the current mansion between 1844 and 1847. The carriage followed. After its heyday, it was retired into one of the outbuildings where it was neglected, literally used as a chicken coop, until its rediscovery in 1996. It was sold at auction that year.

Painted a distinctive bright yellow with a black roof over the passenger compartment, the carriage still carries the crest of the Chichester family on the doors. It was originally designed as a family travelling carriage or town chariot, it was converted at a later point in the 19th century to a slightly larger and less formal carriage for regular family use.

Thomas Pedler’s great grandson, Mr Garth Pedler, acquired the carriage in 1996 when it came up for sale, because of the family connection. He had some conservation work carried out on the carriage and has since gifted it to the National Trust, who will be doing further conservation on it.  […]

Joanna Cairns, National Trust registrar said: ‘The process of moving the Victorian carriage from its current home near Totnes to Arlington has been fascinating. Due to its size and age, a specialist art handling company transported the carriage to Arlington Court. Once here it was then transferred into another specialist lorry where it went through a 24-hour process of warm air treatment to kill woodworm (and any other pests). Once it had the all-clear, it was admitted into the museum to ensure no pests could affect the rest of the collection.’

Now that it has been officially introduced to the museum, the carriage will undergo extensive analysis and conservation. Conservation of carriages is complicated because there are so many moving parts and different materials, all of which require specialized treatment. This one’s stint as a chicken coop adds a layer of difficulty, albeit not as much as you might think thanks to Garth Pedler who engaged National Trust Carriage Museum experts to conserve the carriage after he acquired it in 1996.

Conservators will also make a detailed study of the carriage’s construction and modification because they are significant examples of local craftsmanship with several unusual features (ie, a u-shaped window in the front quarter panels, a step and join where the lace of the front interior meets the rest of the interior). The carriage was built by Pettle of Barnstaple, a carriage-building company less than 10 miles from Arlington Court. His name is on the hub caps of the carriage wheels.

As of last month, the carriage has been put on display at Arlington Court’s National Trust Carriage Museum.


Louvre raises funds to reunite Venus cameo cup

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The Louvre has launched a fundraising campaign to acquire an exquisitely carved Italian Renaissance agate cameo of Venus and Cupid that once belonged to Louis XIV. If the campaign succeeds, the cameo will be reunited with its original carved stone and silver-gilt cup for the first time since it disappeared into private collections after the French Revolution.

Carved in meticulous detail from a single agate stone from Graubünden, Germany, the cameo depicts Venus at languid rest on a shell (the one she was born in, perhaps) with her son Cupid curled up next to her holding her hand. The carving takes full advantage of the natural color variations and swirls of the agate to set Venus’ pearlescent pale skin against the rich ochres of the shell underneath her. The cameo is rimmed with a silver-gilt border and a gilt swan, neck elegantly curved, wings outstretched, overlooks the loving scene of mother and babe.

It was made in the early 17th century by Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni, scion of a Milanese family of hardstone carvers whose works were prized among the aristocracy and nobility of Europe for hundreds of years. (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was so pleased with their work he ennobled Giovanni and his brothers around the same time this cameo was carved.) Miseroni mounted the cameo as a lid onto a carved agate cup which was a hardstone masterpiece in its own right.

The cameo first appears on the historical record in 1661 in the inventory of the massive collection of Cardinal Jules Mazarin after his death. The inventory listing describes the vessel  thus:

A large shell-shaped cup carved from a single piece of German agate, upheld by a silver-gilt dolphin placed on a shell that is also of silver gilt, with another large German shell as its lid, also shell-shaped, carved with a nude Venus lying on a drapery next to a small Cupid and decorated with a silver-gilt rim.

It was one of the three most valuable vessels in the Mazarin collection, and Louis XIV acquired all three of them after the Cardinal’s death. They were in the royal collection until 1796 when they fell victim to a shortsighted (to put it mildly) scheme by the Revolutionary government to pay off creditors in kind with objects from the onetime royal collection. The Miseroni cup disappeared into a private collection, untraced and unpublished, for almost 200 years.

During that time, the cameo was detached from the cup. The cup emerged at auction on its own in 1968 and was acquired the Louvre. It has been on display with other masterpieces of hardstone art in the Galerie d’Apollon ever since.

Because the cameo disappeared without a trace long before it could be photographed, it was only known from written descriptions. When the lost cameo was included in a 2001 catalogue of the hardstone vessels in the royal collection, the owner recognized it from the description. It was sold at auction in London in 2011 and the Louvre tried but failed to buy it then. Now it has another bite at the apple, and the museum is aiming high so it doesn’t get outsold this time. The total price is 2.6 million euros. The public fundraising goal is at least one million euros before February 25th. Click here to contribute.





May 2022


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